- by Jeff Beck
The Founder: The Fascinating Rise of a Fast-Food Empire (Blu-ray)
There has always been something so utterly compelling about a story that tells of a rise to power. Whether it tells of royalty, mythological heroes, or titans of business, that quest to the top always holds fascination in how the individual gets there. It’s not always via the most noble of roads, a trait that we see a lot of the time in the latter of these three categories, but perhaps that’s what makes it the most intriguing.
You may recall the infamous Charles Foster Kane taking a questionable path to success in “Citizen Kane,” or much more recently, the true story of how a young Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook on somewhat shaky ground in “The Social Network,” but have you ever considered how the single biggest fast-food chain in history got started? It’s such a big story that you have to wonder how it’s gone by without ever being told before. Luckily, someone finally did just that, giving us the backstory of those popular “golden arches” and showing us how the most popular fast-food franchise in the country became that way under not-so-amiable means.
“The Founder” starts off in 1954 with Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) on the road as he attempts to sell milkshake machines to various stores. He’s not having much success, that is, until a drive-in burger shop puts in a rather large order. Out of curiosity, he travels to the restaurant in San Bernardino to find something that is the first of its kind: McDonald’s, a restaurant where you receive your order in 30 seconds and everything the food and drinks come in is disposable. The owners of the restaurant, Mac (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick (Nick Offerman) McDonald, give Ray a tour of the kitchen, and by the time he’s seen everything, he decides that he has to get in on it somehow.
His immediate thought is to franchise their idea, but the brothers claim to have already tried it without much success. However, with a bit of persistence, he finally persuades them to let him try. He is eventually successful, but due to his contract, his profits are rather limited. After an attempt to renegotiate with the brothers fails, he ends up taking the advice of a lawyer (B.J. Novak), who points him towards real estate as the answer to his problem. Ray stealthily makes his play for control, setting up a confrontation with the brothers that could very well lead to a new owner of this booming business.
“The Founder” has all the makings of a classic coming-to-power story that hooks you from its opening scenes. Ray Kroc is a down-on-his-luck salesman who certainly has his “song and dance” down, but the problem is that nobody’s buying regardless. As we slip into the main part of the story, beginning with Kroc discovering McDonald’s, we get caught up in the nostalgic wonder of seeing how this billion-dollar restaurant first got off the ground from its humble beginnings. However, with Kroc being more of an idea man, he sees something much more than just a game-changing idea that will alter the food industry forever. He sees the potential for the substantial monetary gain that he’s been chasing after his whole life.
Screenwriter Robert Siegel uses these early scenes in a rather subversive fashion, bringing the audience to the point where we practically pity Kroc in his desperation to succeed at his work, a task that keeps him far from his wife (Laura Dern) for long periods of time. So, of course, when this incredible opportunity comes along for him, and the charming McDonald brothers, to succeed, we’re all for it, but little do we know that Kroc’s character is going to undergo a devious, loathsome, and yet, engrossing change in the pursuit of his dream.
It’s when the film takes this dark turn that you feel somewhat tricked. Like the naïve McDonald brothers, we get so caught up with the sudden expansion of this incredible little drive-in that we don’t really expect the sudden turnaround. However, unlike Mac and Dick, we have the added benefit of being right there with Kroc as he wheels and deals his way deeper into the business, leaving them to find out about his backhanded plans later.
Strangely enough, this is the most fascinating part of the film, as it usually is for stories of this type. It was spellbinding to watch Kane become a newspaper mogul and to witness Zuckerberg create what would become one of the most popular websites of all time under the nose of the Winklevoss twins, and so it is as well with seeing Kroc slowly plot to swindle the McDonald brothers out of their dream. The funny thing is, these are people who don’t see themselves necessarily as “villains.” Kroc certainly doesn’t appear to think so. He just wanted a bigger piece of the pie, and was willing to do what was necessary to get it. Because of this, an incredible story unfolded that created an insanely successful fast-food empire, one that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Siegel’s amazing screenplay is certainly a major reason as to why the film works so well, perfectly structuring the story to have us sympathizing with Kroc from the start, and subsequently having us become more engrossed when his character takes a dark turn. However, much of the credit must be given to the outstanding ensemble as well. Keaton, coming off of his brilliant performance in “Birdman” (for which he was robbed of an Oscar), is spellbinding as Kroc, giving him the passion, determination, and drive that makes him so compelling to follow on this journey. John Carroll Lynch and Nick Offerman are marvelous as the brothers, who try so hard to stick to the root of their dream, but quickly start to lose control when they take a chance on Kroc’s offer. Laura Dern must also be mentioned, for while her scenes are few, she still leaves an impact equal to that of her castmates.
You can even through in the incredible production design from Michael Corinblith (whose team painstakingly recreated the original McDonald’s restaurant, on top of multiple other 50s settings) and John Lee Hancock’s (“Saving Mr. Banks”) excellent direction. However, when it comes right to it, this is one of those films that simply features a great story, one that is told really well. It’s one of those tales that you get swept up in right from the start, and even though you may already know where it ends up, the journey to get there is still captivating. I suppose stories of this nature always will be.
“The Founder” comes to Blu-ray in a 2.40:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. The picture is beautifully sharp and clear throughout the 115-minute runtime, perfectly highlighting all of the hard work that went into the film’s marvelous production design. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is equally impressive, giving you the dialogue and Carter Burwell’s score in excellent quality. Overall, there’s not a complaint to be had in either department, leaving you with a home release that gives you a top-notch experience.
The Story Behind the Story (5 Minutes): A brief featurette about the true story and how the film came about, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc (3 Minutes): A short featurette that is basically the cast and crew singing the praises of Michael Keaton.
The McDonald Brothers (4 Minutes): A featurette that focuses on Dick and Mac McDonald and the actors who portray them.
The Production Design (7 Minutes): A fascinating featurette that explores the film’s incredible art direction through behind the scenes footage and interviews with the production designer, among others.
Building McDonald’s: Time Lapse Video (1 Minute): Just as the title implies, this is just a quick video of the McDonald’s being built for the film.
Press Conference with Filmmakers and Cast (38 Minutes): An excellent Q&A with the cast and crew that covers topics including the genesis of the film.
“The Founder” features an engrossing tale of the rise of a fast-food empire, an exceptional cast that’s at the top of their game, and a marvelous screenplay that lays out these events in all of their intriguing, gritty detail. What results is one of the best films of 2016 that, like the outstanding “Silence,” was scarcely seen by anyone while in theaters. Hopefully it too will have a second chance at life now that it’s getting its home release, for this truly is a fascinating story that will more than likely surprise audiences.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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